Magazine article The Spectator

Are Driverless Cars a Fantasy?

Magazine article The Spectator

Are Driverless Cars a Fantasy?

Article excerpt

A conversation

Philip Hammond's last Budget focused on driverless cars as an example of the brave new technological world. But should we believe the hype? The Spectator arranged for Christian Wolmar, author of a new book on the subject, to meet Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather and The Spectator'sWiki Man columnist, to talk about the future of driving and transport.

Wolmar: Let's face it: we're talking about a technology that will never happen. There may be some driverless cars going round Phoenix in a very limited way but the owners, Waymo, which is part of Google, are very secretive about precisely what they're doing. The hype is being driven by carmakers, desperate to lay claim to the future, and tech giants, who have all this footloose capital that they don't know what to do with. So they imagine their next big thing will be driverless cars. In fact, most of the driverless-car experiments we read about are actually cars containing drivers who can take over in an emergency. It's as much of a fantasy as the jet-powered backpacks that used to be in the Beano that I read in the 1960s.

Sutherland: I am less sceptical. Being driverless is not an all-or-nothing proposition: there are intermediate gains, not least in road safety. These are cars which, as you say, are more or less driven by human beings -- but their new technology means they are much less capable of causing harm. And I think we can reasonably be optimistic about that. I drive a seven-year-old Jaguar...

Wolmar: I drive a 15-year-old Skoda!

Sutherland: ...and my car has something called 'adaptive cruise control'. You set the maximum speed, then it has a kind of radar sensor, so it stays a set distance away from the car in front. It drives by moderating its speed, right up to the limit you set. This makes motorway driving both easier for me and also a good bit safer.

Wolmar: That is by no means a driverless car.

Sutherland: But it opens up possibilities. You could add a metal wire along each lane, so all traffic stays in the same lane, and then you could create convoy motoring quite easily. A large number of driver hours, particularly if you are a trucker, are spent on America's interstate system. If you allowed truckers to latch on -- electronically -- to a truck in front, then they could relax. Provided the driver at the front wasn't a deranged lunatic, that is.

Wolmar: There are six levels of automation of cars. Level zero is no automation. Level three would mean you are driven for about 80 per cent of the time, but you have to be alert at all times because the car is not ready to deal with all situations. That's in theory. In practice, Ford found drivers fell asleep on the motorway because it was too boring. So they had to abandon the whole thing. And you know what? For many journeys in Europe, we already have driverless cars -- we have large convoys with only one driver at the front. They're called trains. They work. So these driverless-car convoys won't happen.

Sutherland: Certainly airlines discovered a fundamental problem with an autopilot. If it hands over very hastily to a less than alert pilot, you create this catastrophic hiatus. Take the Air France crash. One second, everything is going fine, then the Pitot tube freezes over so the autopilot doesn't have a correct measure of airspeed. Then the pilot essentially goes from playing with his laptop to sheer white-knuckle terror in the space of one second. At which point it's hugely difficult to work out what's going on.

The other problem is that you might end up with pilots who spend most of their flying hours with an autopilot, so they lose the basic intuitive skills that, say, a Sully Sullenberger had when it comes to landing a plane in a river. When the engines failed on that BA 777 coming in from China just short of the runway at Heathrow, the pilot instinctively added another few degrees of flap at the very last minute, enough to clear the fence at the end of the runway. …

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